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Future of Cabrini-Green Rowhouses May Be Settled After 19 Years in Limbo

By Mina Bloom | September 11, 2015 4:54pm | Updated on September 14, 2015 8:45am
 Residents of the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses listen during a press conference announcing the lawsuit in 2013.
Residents of the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses listen during a press conference announcing the lawsuit in 2013.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

NEAR NORTH SIDE — At least 1,800 public housing units will return to Cabrini-Green when the area redevelops in the coming years, according to an imminent settlement reached between former tenants of the housing project and the Chicago Housing Authority.

A settlement is imminent in the 2013 lawsuit filed against the Chicago Housing Authority by former tenants, who demanded that public housing units be restored after they were unexpectedly ousted from the long-standing row houses.

Under the settlement agreement, which was reached within the last couple of weeks, CHA has agreed to return at least 1,800 public housing units to the Near North Side, an attorney involved in the settlement told DNAinfo Chicago.

 The final Cabrini-Green Redevelopment Plan
The final Cabrini-Green Redevelopment Plan
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Chicago Housing Authority

The former Cabrini-Green housing development offered more than 3,000 units when it was standing. Court documents show the redevelopment plan calls for 5,279 total units.

Of the 440 row houses at the heart of the 2013 lawsuit, at least 40 percent of units will be reserved for public housing and at least 15 percent will be affordable housing in future construction. Though this falls short of 100-percent public housing, which was one of the goals of the tenant group, a lawyer with the group said it is still a victory.

"We're pretty pleased with that. That one of the key issues in the suit," said Elizabeth Rosenthal, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago who represents the advisory council.

Mina Bloom discusses the future of the Near North Side site:

If the settlement is approved by the courts, it would mean the end of the 2013 lawsuit, which was filed by the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, claiming the CHA broke its promise to keep 440 public housing units, which have remained fenced in and boarded up since 2008.

The settlement agreement does not determine whether the row houses will be torn down or not. That is likely to be left open to the developers, who are expected to bid on the properties and redevelop the area.

The agreement also increases the required percentage of public housing units from 30 percent to 33 percent for the remaining properties that fall under the Consent Decree, a 2000 mandate to include 700 public housing units in certain buildings on the Cabrini site. It does not apply to Consent Decree housing that was already built.

Rosenthal said 33-percent public housing is the percentage CHA traditionally requires, but the Consent Decree was negotiated before that became the norm. 

Also under the settlement, CHA would amend its current policies to give families who live in properties that fall under the Consent Decree first priority to apply for programs like The Project Rental Assistance and The Rental Assistance Demonstration, according to court documents.

The future of Cabrini-Green

Throughout the legal struggle, CHA has pointed to the lawsuit as the main hurdle to redeveloping the Near North Side.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose ward includes the site and who grew up in the old Cabrini-Green row houses himself, called the long process "very frustrating."

"I know a lot of these people personally. To be living in limbo for 19 years, waiting to come back. It had been very disingenuous on all parties' sides," he said.

But he called the recent agreement a "great compromise," saying the residents got more public housing than they otherwise would have. He said CHA and its development partners are looking at potentially giving tenants the opportunity to become homeowners.

The CHA wanted the row houses to be 30-percent public housing, 20-percent affordable and 50-percent market-rate.

Rosenthal said while her clients may be frustrated about not winning 100-percent public housing, "there are so many victories that counter-balance that." 

"There is going to be more public housing in that area and we're increasing the amount of public housing on the Consent Decree site. That is something they achieved," she said.

The history of the lawsuit

In 2008, the residents who lived in the 440 row houses agreed to relocate so that their homes could be fixed up, but construction never started.

A year later a quarter of all Cabrini row houses were rehabbed, while those 440 units were left boarded up.

So the advisory council filed a federal lawsuit, seeking to protect the row houses from destruction and to force the agency to hold up its end of the promise to renovate the final 440 units.

Rosenthal said CHA's broken promise would perpetuate segregation.

"[The CHA] had an overall obligation to build 25,000 replacement units [across the city]. You're going to have to build those somewhere. If you're not going to build those here, they're going to be in high-poverty areas. They're going to end up on the South and West Sides. People are going to be re-segregated," she said.

The case, which is tied to a desegregation lawsuit filed in 1966, was initially dismissed, so the group appealed.

Since January, the CHA and the advisory council have been in settlement negotiations. They reached an agreement within the last couple of weeks, according to Rosenthal.

Moving forward

At a meeting held to discuss Cabrini's long-awaited redevelopment plan in April, CHA development manager Kathy Caisley said the bidding process was on hold until the lawsuit was resolved.

"We cannot make any plans while it's under litigation," she said. "As soon as litigation concludes, we expect to go out with a request for proposals."

Burnett said his office and the CHA are getting ready to make some requests for proposals for the Consent Decree properties.

"We're hoping to move on this stuff as soon as possible," he said.

Officials have said the goal of the redevelopment plan is to build 2,330-2,830 housing units in buildings on 14 parcels on 50 acres. The mix of rentals and privately owned units hasn't been determined.

The first building phase, considered the most significant, will add 970-1,270 housing units.

In April, CHA said the buildings would be built by private developers and bid out in three phases, originally anticipating the first of the bids going out this summer on four parcels of land. (The bids will likely go forward once the settlement is finalized.) Construction on those four developments is expected to start between next year and 2018 and be completed a year later.

"Not having a cloud of litigation will definitely make things straightforward going forward," Rosenthal said, adding that CHA is "eager" to move forward with the redevelopment plan. 

CHA did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Who is impacted

It is unclear how many residents who lived in the row houses have the right to return.

Burnett estimates it's more than 1,000 people.

But Rosenthal said she's concerned CHA — which didn't immediately respond to comment for this story — doesn't have an accurate number.

"They've been losing track of people really regularly. It's concerning. Their numbers are shockingly low," she said.

The longer it takes to get replacement units, Rosenthal said, the more likely it is that more residents will get "lost."

Keeping the row houses is a "very emotional issue" for the tenants, she said. 

"The row houses have symbolic value. These were their homes, and they counted on them being their homes."

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